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Fire breaks out at nuclear power plant facility in Japan

Thursday, March 23, 2006

TOKYO -- A fire broke out at a nuclear power plant's waste incinerator in western Japan on Wednesday, but officials said no radiation leaked into the atmosphere. Two workers were injured.

It took firefighters wearing protective suits nearly two hours to reach the blaze because of thick smoke, and another two hours to put out the flames at the facility in Oi, about 235 miles west of Tokyo, said Manabu Kobana of Kansai Electric Power Co.

Sensors inside and around the plant showed no signs of a radiation leak, police said. All four pressurized water reactors at Oi were operating normally, and workers at the plant reactors remained at their stations during the fire. No one was evacuated.

"We don't believe the reactors were at any time exposed to danger," Fukui police official Ritsuo Eto said.

Two workers who were inspecting the facility were rushed to a hospital after inhaling smoke, but they were not in critical condition and were not exposed to radiation, fire officials said.

Resource-poor Japan is heavily dependent on its nuclear program, but the public has been increasingly wary of reactor safety following a series of malfunctions and accidents.

The cause of Wednesday evening's blaze -- located at the waste incinerating facility between the No. 3 and No. 4 reactors -- was still under investigation. But flames seemed to have come from an area in the facility where the ash from incinerated trash is packed into steel barrels, Kobana said.

The waste processed at the facility includes employee uniforms, rags and other trash from the plant and may contain "minuscule" levels of radiation, Kobana said.

Japan's 55 nuclear reactors supply about one-third of the country's electricity, according to the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, though residents are wary of the plants' safety record.

In 2004, five workers were killed when a corroded pipe at a reactor in western Japan ruptured and sprayed plant workers with boiling water and steam in the country's worst-ever nuclear plant accident. No radiation escaped from that reactor, which has since resumed operations.

In 1999, a radiation leak at a fuel-reprocessing plant northeast of Tokyo killed two workers and triggered the evacuation of thousands of residents. That accident was caused by two workers who tried to save time by mixing excessive amounts of uranium in buckets instead of using special mechanized tanks.

The government has said it wants to build 11 new plants and raise electricity output generated by nuclear power to nearly 40 percent of the national supply by 2010.


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